Saturday, October 12, 2013

Rubbing Our Faces In It: Claire Denis’s Bastards

Chiara Mastroianni and Vincent Lindon in Bastards

She’s only made eleven features in her 25 year film career, but French filmmaker Claire Denis’s output has been stellar, with nearly half a dozen masterpieces (J'ai pas sommeil / I Can't Sleep (1994), Nénette et Boni / Nenette and Boni (1996), Vendredi soir / Friday Night (2002), L'intrus / The Intruder (2004); 35 rhums / 35 Shots of Rum (2008)) to her credit and very few duds. Thus, it pains me to point out how unpleasant and offensive Bastards (Les Salauds), her latest movie, actually is. It’s a revenge thriller that’s almost as simply drawn as Charles Bronson’s two-dimensional Death Wish (1974) and in terms of pandering to the basest prejudices of its audience, it, incredibly, is reminiscent of the torture porn aspects of vile films like the Saw and Hostel series. We’re talking about Claire Denis, still one of France’s finest talents and, prior, to this movie, a demonstrated class act. What was she thinking?

The film, which anchors a Claire Denis retrospective in Toronto, opens with a man contemplating suicide on a rainy night in Paris. Next shot is of a naked young woman, blood flowing down her legs, walking, stunned, along the mean city streets. The following morning, Sandra (Julie Bataille), the suicide’s widow, weeps over his body. She blames a powerful French business mogul, Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor, one of Denis’ cast of regular actors who pop up throughout the film), for her husband’s death – he had warned the police about Laporte’s danger to his safety, as well as bankrupting him because of shady business dealings - and then reaches out to her seafaring brother Marco (Vincent Lindon) – he’s a captain on a Russian trawler – who hastens home to Paris to help his distraught sibling. How the young woman figures into the whole picture and what happens after forms the basis of Bastards, which begins promisingly before, unfortunately wallowing in the worst of human nature.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Shiver Me Timbers: A Contemporary Pirate Saga - Paul Greengrass's Captain Phillips

When not commanding cargo ships on the salty high seas, Richard Phillips normally leads a rather ordinary, salt-of-the-earth life with his family at their 1840 farmhouse in Underhill, Vermont. He snowboards each winter and cruises nearby Lake Champlain in a powerboat during the warmer months. Now 58, Phillips also reads a lot. He’s a history buff who enjoys, among other subjects, books about pirates. That means buccaneers wielding swords in olden times, not the modern-day Somali teenagers with AK-47s who held him captive for five days in April 2009 until his rescue by the Navy’s fabled SEAL Team Six.

Captain Phillips is a new film about that ordeal by Paul Greengrass, the British director probably best known for action flicks like The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). A better comparison with the current release might be his Bloody Sunday (2002), about “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, or United 93 (2006), a chronicle of what may have taken place aboard the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11. The scrawny kids who try to hijack the unarmed Maersk Alabama, the freighter Phillips is navigating on the Indian Ocean, come from a typically impoverished coastal town in lawless Somalia, where vicious warlords order them to commit such crimes. Like most of their peers, they chew an amphetamine-like leaf called Khat. Pumped up for the job by this narcotic, the pirates race in small, swift skiffs toward the slower-moving ship that carries tons of food aid intended for several African countries.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Face Value: Ron Howard's Rush

Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl in Ron Howard's Rush

Like many people who have spent their entire adult lives, and then some, working in Hollywood, Ron Howard has a frame of reference shaped far more by movies than real life experience or history. As a child actor, Howard made a career out of gazing, in awe and worshipful confusion, at those who had mastered adult life, and as a successful, middle-aged movie director, that’s still his specialty. This can be a problem when he insists on making movies about people who have one foot in common, everyday experience, set in a world that is meant to be our own. I don’t remember ever having had a worse time at the movies than Backdraft (1991), his battling-firefighter-brothers movie, with a story thread about political corruption and a rip-off of Hannibal Lecter thrown in for good measure; the movie had a lot of problems to choose from, but the one at its core was its embarrassing, confident assumption that everyone still feels about firemen the way they did when they were eight years old. (If it had been released ten years later, in the wake of 9/11, it might have been acclaimed for its Zola-like realism.)

Howard’s new movie, Rush, is about Formula One race car drivers. It’s his most entertaining movie since the one about astronauts, Apollo 13, which may have something to do with the fact that its heroes are people for whom making those in civilian life feel as if they’re eight years old is part of their job description. It’s lighter, faster, and trashier than the solemnly engaging Apollo 13, maybe because it’s possible to make an argument that astronauts have a job that’s worth doing. Rush was written by Peter Morgan, the docudrama specialist who previously collaborated with Howard on the movie version of his play Frost/Nixon  a project that was in some ways a perfect fit for Howard, since it called for a director capable of gazing, with some degree of awe and worshipful confusion, on David Frost. Rush is set in the 1970s and deals with the rivalry between two top-dog drivers, the glamorously sexy, low-born thrill seeker James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the methodical, self-possessed gearhead and German control freak Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). The script includes deep thoughts about the nature of competition, and how one man needs his opposite number to drive him to be the best, but the movie is really about stardom, and about wondering whether one means of achieving it has more integrity, and ultimately means more, than another. It’s also about ‘70s hair.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Coming of Age: The Spectacular Now and The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now

American filmmakers seem to have lost the knack of making romantic comedies, but every year brings some good new coming-of-age pictures. The Spectacular Now, which opened late in the summer, has a casual, intimate style that derives from the director James Ponsoldt’s interplay with his actors as well as from the dialogue that the screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (adapting a novel by Tim Tharp), give them to work with. Ponsoldt’s leading man is the phenomenally talented Miles Teller; he the haunted teenager in Rabbit Hole who was inadvertently responsible for running down Nicole Kidman’s little boy, and he also played the grinning best pal in Footloose who learns how to dance in that musical’s most exuberant scene. In The Spectacular Now he’s Sutter, a high school kid who’s stalled in every conceivable way as he approaches graduation. He’s skating through his classes and dangerously close to failing math; he hasn’t completed his college applications. He drinks too much; he carries a whiskey flask around with him and sometimes shows up under the influence for his after-school job, in a men’s store. His girl friend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), breaks up with him and immediately starts dating the best catch in the senior class, a football player named Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi) and also the president of the student council. The title of the movie refers to Sutter’s lame claim to a philosophy – living in the present rather than worrying about the future. It doesn’t seem to be serving him especially well: Cassidy leaves him because she thinks he’s cheating on her, but really she’s ready to move on to someone who suits her seriousness about her own future.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Elmore Leonard: An Appreciation

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Howard Shrier, to our group.

When Elmore Leonard died in August, shortly after suffering a stroke at age 87, tributes flowed fast and furious in newspapers, on blogs and other media. Some were from writers you would expect to love Leonard (Robert Crais, Michael Connelly); others came from those on whom he would seem to have had little or no influence (Jackie Collins).

I suppose I fall somewhere in between. My crime novels, save for one, have been first-person private eye stories. With the exception of his classic Western, Hombre, Leonard never wrote in the first person. Nor did he ever feature a private eye as a protagonist. My first loves and most direct influences were Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler, and, later on, Robert B. Parker, Crais and Dennis Lehane, all of whom featured first-person private eyes who mixed humour and action in a blend I found satisfying and inspiring.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Sign of Life: Nina Raine's Tribes

Erica Spyres and James Caverly in Tribes

In the middle of the second act of Tribes, the drama by the English playwright Nina Raine that is being given its Boston premiere by the SpeakEasy Stage Company, Billy (James Caverly) probes the woman he’s living with, Sylvia (Erica Spyres), to clarify what’s going wrong between them. Billy is deaf; Sylvia – his first serious girl friend – grew up with deaf parents but has only recently begun to lose her hearing. Billy grew up in a hearing family and never learned to sign; his mother Beth (Adrianne Krstansky) taught him how to speak and as a child he showed no interest in interacting with other deaf people because he absorbed his parents’ point of view that if he spoke and read lips and wore hearing aids then he could conquer what they saw in others as a handicap. But his relationship with Sylvia has drawn him into the deaf world, and she’s taught him how to sign. However, now he feels that she’s growing away from him, and he’s right. She insists that her feeling of loss as she goes deaf is different from anything he could possibly have experienced, since he’s never been able to hear:
I feel I’m losing my personality. . . can’t even be ironic any more . . . I feel stupid . . . when I lose something in the house I have to put my hearing aids in to look for it . . . I have these dreams . . . when I’m talking on the phone again. And I can hear perfectly. It’s all so clear . . . I don’t know who I am any more . . .
At the end of the scene she speaks and signs (“vehemently,” according to the stage directions), “Not everything in my life can be deaf.” This must be the most unorthodox break-up scene I’ve ever encountered in the theatre.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Delivers a Mighty Wallop

Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

This piece contains spoilers for The Avengers (2012) and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Despite Joss Whedon’s near-legendary status among his legions of fans, his television shows have long felt like underdog projects. While this fact has probably contributed to the good will he continues to inspire, it has also meant that has shows have had contested and limited lifespans. (Firefly famously never finished its short first season, and Dollhouse fought for practically every episode it aired during its two seasons on Fox.) With last summer’s blockbuster showing for the Whedon written and directed Marvel’s The Avengers, that all changed: the beloved cult icon became Hollywood’s golden boy. (It is tempting to compare this transformation to the comparable moment when Evil Dead’s Sam Raimi became Spider-Man’s Sam Raimi, but that is a story for another time.) For better or for worse, 1.5 billion in worldwide box office is always going to bring more schlep into the room than the adoration of the ComicCon community.

Co-created by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen, ABC’s Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is set in the aftermath of The Avengers, specifically its closing, climactic “Battle of New York”. Because of the publicity – and extensive property damage – of that failed alien invasion, S.H.I.E.L.D. is entering a new era of increased activity and public scrutiny. Times are a-changing and Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg, reprising his film role) is putting together a new (non-super) team to reflect that new normal: a hand-picked but not quite combat ready team, with more snark and smarts than field skills.

When I first heard of the series, it was thrilling to imagine Joss returning to television, even in co-creator/exec producer mode. (His Avengers success seemed to make any new television venture extremely unlikely.) But with the burden of that film franchise behind the project, it was also just as easy to imagine the show collapsing under its own weight (or its title), Whedons or no Whedons. Frankly, as the high profile spin-off of the third most profitable movie of all time, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t have to be good to be popular. But right off the bat, this show promises to be more than a tie-in product for the multibillion-dollar franchise: it looks and sounds like a Whedon series.